June 29, 2017: SS. PETER AND PAUL (PART II)
June 29, 2017: SS. PETER AND PAUL, APOSTLES
Rank: Double of the I Class.
(Part II - Crucifixion of St. Peter)
“Amen, amen I say to thee,… when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. And this he said, signifying by what death he should glorify God.”
(St. John, xxi. 18-19)
O God, who hast consecrated this day by the martyrdom of thy glorious Apostles Peter and Paul; grant thy Church may in all things follow their directions, by whom was laid the foundation of her religion. Thro’ thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
PART II – Crucifixion of St. Peter.
To-day's teachings have intrinsically an important preponderance in the economy of Christian dogma; they are the completion of the whole Work of the Son of God; the cross of Peter fixes the Church in her stability, and marks out for the Divine Spirit the immutable centre of His operations.
Fully To-day, do the heavens declare the glory of God, as David expresses it, To-day do they show us the course of the Spouse completed on the Eternal Hills. (Ps, xviii. 2-6) Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night revealeth the deep secret: (Ps, xviii. 3) From north and south of the New Sion, from either side of her stream, Peter and Paul waft one to other, as a farewell song, as a sacred Epithalamium, the good Word; (Ps, xliv. 2) sublime that echo, sonorous its power, vocal still throughout the whole earth, (Ps, xviii. 4-5) and yet to resound as long as the world lasts. These two torches of salvation blend their flames above the palaces of ancient Rome; the passing darkness of their death, that night of which the Psalmist sings, now concentrates light, for ever, in the midst of the Queen City. Beside the Throne of the Bridegroom fixed for ever and ever on yonder seven hills, (Ps, xliv. 7-10) the Gentile world, now become the Bride, is resplendent in glory, (Eph, v. 27) all fair in that peerless purity which she derives from their blood united as it is to that of the Son of God.
But seemly is it, not to forget, on so great a day, those other messengers sent forth by the Divine Householder, and who watered earth's high-ways with their sweat and with their blood, the while they hastened the triumph and the gathering in of the guests invited to the Marriage feast. (St. Matth, xxii. 8-10) To them is it due, if now the Law of grace is definitively promulgated throughout all nations, and if in every language and upon every shore, the good Tidings have been sounded. (Ps, xviii. 4-5) Thus the festival of St. Peter, completed by the more special memory of St. Paul his comrade in death, has been from earliest times, regarded as the festival likewise of the whole Apostolic College. In those primitive times it seemed impossible to dream of separating from their glorious leader any of those whom Our Lord had so intimately joined together in the responsibility of one common work. But in course of time, however, particular solemnities were successively consecrated to each one of the Apostles, and so the feast of June 29th was more exclusively attributed to the two Princes whose martyrdom rendered this day illustrious. More than this; as we shall presently see, the Roman Church not thinking it possible fittingly to honour both of these on the same day, deferred till the morrow, her more explicit praises of the Doctor of the Gentiles. She thus became more free to concentrate the demonstrations of her devoted enthusiasm upon him whom even the Greek Church herself styles, in every form, the corypheus of the blessed choir of Apostles. These remarks seem needed for the clear understanding of the Office which is about to follow.
Since the terrible persecution of the year 64, Rome had become for Peter a sojourn fraught with peril, and he remembered how his Master had said to him, when appointing him Shepherd of both lambs and sheep: follow thou me. (St. John, xxi) The Apostle, therefore awaited the day when he must mingle his blood with that of so many thousands of Christians, whom he had initiated into the faith, and whose Father he truly was. But before quitting earth, Peter must triumph over Simon the Magician, his base antagonist. This heresiarch did not content himself with seducing souls by his perverse doctrines; he sought even to mimic Peter in the prodigies operated by him. So he proclaimed that on a certain day, he would fly in the air. The report of this novelty quickly spread through Rome, and the people were full of the prospect of such a marvellous sight. If we are to believe Dion Chrysostom, Nero seems even to have entertained at his court this wondrous personage, who pledged himself to soar aloft in mid-air. More than that, the Emperor would even with his own presence honour this rare sight. The imperial lodge was reared upon the Via Sacra, where the scene was to be enacted. But cruel for the impostor did this deception prove. “Scarce had this Icarus begun to poise his flight,” says Suetonius, “than he fell close to Nero's lodge which was bathed in his blood.” The gravest writers of Christian antiquity are unanimous in attributing to the prayer of Peter, this humiliation inflicted on the Samaritan Juggler in the very midst of Rome where he had dared to set himself up, as the rival of Christ's Vicar.
The disgrace of the heresiarch, as well as his blood, had fallen on the Emperor himself. Curiosity and ill-will but needed, therefore, to be combined, in order to attract personally upon Peter, an attention that might prove disastrous. Moreover, be it remembered, there was yet another danger, and to this Saint Paul alludes, namely the peril of false brethren. To understand this term and justly to appreciate the situation, we must bear in mind how inevitable are the clashings of certain characters in a society so numerous as was already that of the Christians in Rome; and how discontent is necessarily caused to vulgar minds when sometimes existing circumstances demand higher interests to be exclusively consulted, in the always difficult question of choosing persons to offices of trust, or to special confidence. These things well borne in mind, it will be easy to account for what Saint Clement, an eye-witness of the Apostle's martyrdom, attests in a letter to the Corinthians, viz. that “rivalries and jealousies” had a large share in the tragic end brought about, through the suspicions at last conceived by the authorities, against “this Jew.”
The filial devotedness of the Christians of Rome took alarm and they implored Saint Peter to elude the danger for a while, by instant flight. “Although he would have much preferred to suffer” says Saint Ambrose, Peter set out along the Appian Way. Just as he reached the Capuan gate, Christ suddenly presented himself, seemingly about to enter the City. “Lord whither goest thou?” cried out the Apostle. “To Borne,” Christ replied, “to be there crucified again.” The disciple understood his Master; he at once retraced his steps, having no thought now, save to await his hour of martyrdom. This Gospel-like scene expresses the sequel of our Lord's designs upon the venerable old man. With a view to founding the Christian Church in unity, He had extended unto His disciples his own prophetic name of the “Rock,” or “Stone” Petrus; now, even unto the Cross itself, was He about to make him His participator. Rome having replaced Jerusalem must likewise have her Calvary.
In his flight, Peter dropped from his leg a bandlet which a disciple picked up, with much respect. A monument was afterwards raised on the spot where this incident occurred: it is now the Church of Saints Nereus and Achilles anciently called Titulus fasciolæ, the Title of the bandlet. According to the designs of Providence, the humble fasciola was to recall the memory of that momentous meeting at the gates of Rome, where Christ in person stood face to face with His Apostle, the visible Head of His Church, and announced that the hour of his sacrifice on the cross was at hand.
From that moment, Peter set everything in order, with a view to his approaching end. It was at this time he wrote his Second Epistle, which is as it were his last testament and loving farewell to the Church. Therein he declares that the close of his life is near, and compares his body to a temporary shelter, a tent, which one takes down, to journey further on. The laying away of this my tabernacle is at hand, according as our Lord Jesus Christ also hath signified to me. (II Peter, i. 14) A These his words are evidently an allusion to the apparition on the Appian way. But, before quitting this world, Peter must provide for the transmission of his pastoral charge and for the needs of Holy Church, now about to be widowed of her visible Head. To this he refers in these words: And I will do my endeavour that after my decease you may also often have, whereby you may keep a memory of these things. (II Peter, i. 15)
Into whose hands are those keys to pass, which he received from Christ, as a sign of his dominion over the whole Flock? Linus had been for more than ten years, the Auxiliary of the holy Apostle in the midst of the Christians of Rome; the still further increase of the Faithful, induced Peter to give Linus a colleague, in the person of Cletus; yet on neither of these two did the choice of Peter fall, at this solemn moment, in which he was about to fulfil the promise contained in his farewell letter, to provide for the continuance of his ministry. Clement, whose nobility of birth recommended him to the consideration of the Romans, whilst at the same time, his zeal and learning merited the esteem of the Faithful, was the one on whom the Prince of the Apostles fixed his choice. During these last days still remaining to him, Peter imposed hands on Clement, and having invested him with the Episcopal character, enthroned him in his own Chair, declaring his intention to have him for his Successor. These facts related in the Liber Pontificalis, are confirmed by the testimony of Tertullian and Saint Epiphanius.
Thus the quality of Bishop of Rome entailed that of Universal Pastor; and Peter must needs leave the heritage of the divine keys, to him who should next occupy the See he held at the moment of death. So had Christ ordained; and a heavenly inspiration had led Peter to choose Rome for his last station,—Rome prepared long beforehand, by Providence, unto universal Empire. Hence, at the moment when the Supremacy of Peter passed to one of his disciples, no astonishment was manifested in the Church. It was well known that the Primacy was and must necessarily be a local heritage, and none ignored the fact that Rome herself was that spot made choice of by Peter, long years before. Nor after Peter's death, did it ever occur to the mind of any of the Christians to seek the centre of Holy Church either at Jerusalem, or at Alexandria, or at Antioch, or elsewhere.
The Christians in Pome, made great account of the paternal devotedness he had lavished on their city. Hence their alarms, to which the Apostle once consented to yield. Saint Peter's Epistles so redolent of affection, bear witness to the tenderness of soul with which he was, to a very high degree, gifted. He is ever the Shepherd all devotedness to his sheep, fearing above all else, anything savouring of a domineering tone; he is ever the Vicar effacing himself so that nothing may transpire save the dignity and rights of Him whom he represents. This exquisite modesty is further increased in Peter, by the remembrance which haunts his whole life, (as ancient writers say,) of the sin he had committed and which he continues to deplore, up to these closing days of extreme old age. Faithful ever to that transcending love of which his divine Master had required him to make a triple affirmation, before confiding to him the care of His Flock,—he endured unflinchingly the immense labours of his office of Fisher of men. One circumstance of his life, which relates to this its closing period, reveals most touchingly the devotedness wherewith he clung to Him who had vouchsafed both to call him to follow Him, and to pardon his fragility. Clement of Alexandria has preserved this detail, as follows.
Before being called to the Apostolate, Peter had lived in the conjugal state: from that time forth, his wife became but a sister in his regard; she nevertheless continued in his company, following him about from place to place, in his various journeys, in order to render him service. (I Cor, ix.) She was in Rome whilst Nero's persecution was raging, and the honour of martyrdom thus sought her out. Peter watched her as she stepped forth on her way to triumph, and at that moment, his solicitude broke out in this one exclamation: “Oh! bethink thee of the Lord.” These two Galileans had seen the Lord, had received Him into their house, had made Him their guest at table. Since then, the Divine Pastor had suffered on the cross, had risen again, had ascended into Heaven, leaving the care of his Flock to the Fisherman of Lake Genezareth. What else then would Peter have his wife do at this moment, save to recall such sweet memories, and to dart forwards unto Him whom she had erstwhile known here below in His Human Features, and who was now about to crown her hidden life with immortal glory!
The moment for entering into this same glory came at last for Peter himself. When thou shalt be old, mysteriously had his Master said to him, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. (St. John, xxi.) So, Peter was to attain an advanced age; like his Master, he must stretch forth his arms upon a cross; he must know captivity and the weight of chains with which a foreigner's hand will load him; he must be subjected, in its violent form, to death from which nature recoils, and drink the chalice from which even his Divine Master himself prayed to be spared. But like his Master also, he will arise strong in the divine aid, and will press forwards to the cross. Lo! this oracle is about to be accomplished to the letter.
On the day fixed by God's decree, pagan power gave orders for the Apostle's arrest. Details are wanting as to the judicial procedure which followed, but the constant tradition of the Roman Church is that he was incarcerated in the Mamertine Prison. By this name is known the dungeon constructed at the foot of the Capitoline hill, by Ancus Martius, and afterwards completed by Servius Tullus, whence it is also called Carcer Tullianus. Two outer staircases, called the steps of sighs, led to this frightful den. An upper dungeon gave immediate entrance to that which was to receive the prisoner and never to deliver him up alive, unless he were destined to a public execution. To be put into this horrible place, he had to be let down by cords, through an opening above, and by the same was he finally drawn up again, whether dead or alive. The vaulting of this lower dungeon was high and its darkness was utter and horrible, so that it was an easy task to guard a captive detained therein, specially if he were laden with chains.
On the twenty-ninth of June, in the year sixty-seven, Peter was at length drawn up to be led to death. According to Roman law, he must first be subjected to the scourge, the usual prelude to capital punishment. An escort of soldiers conducted the Apostle to his place of martyrdom, outside the City walls, as the laws required. Peter was marched to execution, followed by a large number of the Faithful, drawn by affection along his path, and for his sake defying every peril.
Beyond the Tiber, facing the Campus Martius there stretches a vast plain, which is reached by the bridge named the Triumphal, whereby the City is put in communication with the Via Triumphalia and the Via Cornelia, both of which roads lead to the North. On its further side from the river, the plain is bounded on the left, by the Janiculum, and beyond that in the background, by the Vatican hills whose chain continues along to the right in the form of an amphi-theatre. Along the bank of the Tiber, the land is occupied by immense gardens, which three years previously had been made by Nero the scene of the principal immolation of the Christians, just at this same season also. To the West of the Vatican Plain and beyond Nero's gardens, was a circus of vast extent, usually called by his name, although in reality it owes its origin to Caligula, who placed in its centre an obelisk which he had transported from Egypt. Outside the Circus, towards its furthest end, rose a temple to Apollo, the protector of the public games. At the other end, the declivity of the Vatican hills begins, and about the middle, facing the Obelisk, was planted a turpentine tree well known to the people. The spot fixed upon for Peter's execution was close to this said turpentine tree. There, likewise, was his tomb already dug. No other spot in all Rome could be more suitable for so august a purpose. From remotest ages, something mysterious had hovered over the Vatican. An old oak, said by the most ancient traditions to be anterior to the foundation of Rome, was there held in great reverence. There was much talk of Oracles heard in this place. Moreover, where could a more choice resting-place be found for this Old Man who had just conquered Rome, than a mound beneath this venerated soil, opening upon the “Triumphal Way” and the “Cornelian Way,” thus uniting the memories of victorious Rome and the name of the Cornelii, which had now become inseparable from that of Peter?
There is something supremely grand, in this taking possession of these places by the Vicar of the Man-God. The Apostle having reached the spot and come up to the instrument of death, implored of his executioners to set him thereon, not in the usual way, but head downwards, in order, said he, that the servant be not seen in the same position once taken by the Master. His request was granted, and Christian tradition, in all ages, renders testimony to this fact which moreover adds further evidence to the deep humility of so great an Apostle. Peter, with outstretched arms, prayed for the City, prayed for the whole world, the while his blood flowed down upon that Roman soil, the conquest of which he had just achieved. At this moment Rome became for ever the new Jerusalem. When the Apostle had gone through the whole round of his sufferings, he expired; but he was to live again in each one of his Successors, unto the end of time.
Taken from: The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806; and
The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. III, Dublin, Edition 1890.
Thou art the pastor of the sheep, O Prince of the Apostles, to thee were delivered the keys of the kingdom of heaven.